As soon as we turn the calendar page to December, the snowflake decorations adorn the streetlights on State Street and the Overture Center once again sets up the hypnotic displays of string lights that give the night sky a sense of holiday spirit. However, December is also when the panic sets in for us college students as finals and studying consume each opportunity to enjoy the holidays. But how about we stop lingering in our contempt for the season and spend an hour with Laboratory Theatre’s “The Santaland Diaries”?
“The Santaland Diaries” was adapted for the stage in 1996 from David Sedaris’ 1992 essay of the same name as a one-man play by Joe Mantello. But Laboratory Theatre takes a slightly different direction in its inaugural show. Instead of leaving one actor to face the Christmas music alone, director Michele Gerard Good adds a chorus cast of 11 additional actors to lend a somewhat more cheerful air to the production.
In this rendition of the essay that launched Sedaris’ career, Crumpet/Blisters is the ’90s Scrooge with a twist — instead of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future haunting him, it’s a green velvet tunic and elf cap, a Santa with a salivation problem and Macy’s shoppers who allow their children to urinate in Santaland’s fake snow.
But it’s not Christmas Crumpet/Blisters despises; it’s the commercialized nature the elf meets at every pass which causes the toes on his newly slippered feet to curl.
Crumpet/Blisters, played by Peter Hunt, is the alter ego of Sedaris, who recounts the time when he was a 30-something man with no money and no better job prospects than those found beneath the Magic Tree at SantaLand. Hunt plays the jaded elf with a welcome amount of vitriol. Biting in his delivery of insults, threats and even pick-up lines, Hunt’s portrayal stands in hard contrast to the holly and jolly that lies around him. Jingle-belled elves frolic across the stage and 5-foot Christmas gifts line the Evjue Theater’s perimeter as he sneers or stares agape at the tomfoolery of Christmas shoppers and his elfin co-workers alike.
Yet Hunt’s Crumpet/Blisters is unfazed by the wonderment around him, maintaining his scowl and shocked appearance. In one particular scene, Hunt is perfectly on point as he encounters an unruly customer. “I’m going to have you fired!” she tells Crumpet/Blisters. Hunt’s character later retorts, “I’m going to have you killed,” with humor — and just enough menace — to overshadow some of the missteps with innovation taken in this play’s direction.
It is this contrast of tones that serves more to disorient audience members than entertain them, it seems. Director Good fills some time with a reindeer dance sequence that’s awkwardly choreographed, and a performance of the song “Cactus Christmas” is just out of place.
Beyond these missteps, however, it is their inclusion in the production at all that should leave audience members puzzled. Rather than incorporating a level of cheer into an otherwise welcomed dry performance, they just make this adaptation disjointed. Should we commiserate with Hunt in his disdain for the decadence and foolishness around him, or do we join in the holiday cheer with a jazzy rendition of “Man With the Bag”?
Furthermore, Good’s intention to create a slightly more family friendly version of the production — nearly all profanity has been stripped from the show — is all but negated with the inclusion of a joke about a group of “profoundly retarded” people. The result of this joke not only failed to yield any laughs, but a notable discomfort seemed to linger in the theater after its delivery.
Laboratory Theatre’s “The Santaland Diaries” is not all about cringes and upturned eyes — Hunt’s scowl softens at the end of the production as Macy’s patrons learn the true nature of Christmas. Yet, those looking for a heartwarming holiday production best look elsewhere — this production, somewhat clumsy in its delivery, may confuse more than comfort.
“The Santaland Diaries” plays now at the Bartell Theater until Dec. 19. Tickets are general admission and priced at $12 for students. The Bricks Theater will pick up the one-man show for a two-day run on Dec. 20 and 21 at the Brink Lounge.